What I would say to student activists (Mizzou, pt. 2)


I believe that that there are appropriate ways and times to say things and inappropriate ones. It does not matter only if what you are saying is true, but also how you say it and when.

After I published this post, I heard from a friend who questioned the helpfulness of my writing an “open letter” like this addressed to black student activists. This friend (who is white) recently spent a week with black activists, and has a much firmer grasp than I do on the backgrounds and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and the campus protests. She wrote the following to me:

Our brothers and sisters do need our dialogue and our teamwork. But writing a public post that critiques them isn’t dialogue or teamwork, just like complaining about your husband on Facebook isn’t dialogue or teamwork, and isn’t exactly helpful in bringing about marital unity or reconciliation.

My friend makes an excellent point. Unasked for criticism given in a public way is not true teamwork and is not helpful. She then went on to say,

Teamwork and dialogue that is needed must be done in relationship, with intentionality. It might look like personally showing up at a protest, watching and listening and getting to know people to understand where they’re coming from and what they want and why they want it. It might look like a commitment to reading Black authors more than reading White authors. It might look less like saying, “Here let me point out where you’re wrong there,” and more like saying, “Help me understand,” and “What can I do?” I think only after we’ve done that work, in real relationship, do we have any right to coach/challenge/tweak what they are doing, and again, in real relationship, not in an open letter.

For the reasons my friend gave, I would like to retract this original post. I have been slow to listen and too quick to write. It is not my place to publicly critique those laboring for this cause.

(Deleting blog posts and pretending they never existed is frowned upon in the cyber world. For this reason, my original text is still present below.)

In this post, I want to explore the strategies employed by student protestors at Missouri, Yale, and other schools last week and then boldly make one suggestion. My impression from what I’ve read is that racial pain has been mounting at both Missouri and Yale for quite awhile. So, while the protests may have seemed to suddenly burst forth like flames for those of us who do not live on these campuses, they actually came as a result of years of experiences of racism by students of color.

Having seen this student generation most often engage in the much easier form of protest that I will call armchair hashtag activism, I was impressed to see a movement arise that involved large scale, organized, physical action. It is easy to change your Facebook profile picture or employ a hashtag slogan. It is much more difficult to commit yourself to a hunger strike, organize hundreds of people for a physical protest and make a detailed list of demands that has every university tier and structure in view. The protestors at Missouri, in particular, with their thorough and coordinated effort were firmly planted in the long American tradition of effective student activism.

Protest leaders at the University of Missouri

Despite my belief in the real pain of black students and my admiration for strategic, sustained effort, I question the wisdom of one of the demands that is frequently made in these protests: the demand for the immediate resignations of university leaders.  At Missouri, the protestors called for (and received) the resignation of the University President, and at Yale, they called for the firing of the Silliman residential college Master because his wife had written an email questioning the value of the Halloween costume guidelines written by the administration.

I am not familiar enough with the details of the Missouri president’s history of leadership to critique his ouster. It may well have been justified in this case, but I am concerned that heads always seem to roll in these circumstances. I would like to examine that trend a bit. We are a society that has learned to quickly fire top leaders, but are we a society that plumbs the deeper lessons in complex situations?

I wonder if the immediate firing of university presidents and deans may, in the end, impede progress toward racial justice on campus. Yes, campus protestors may get what they want for today (the removal of leaders they feel wronged by) but it is quite possible that they will not get what they want for the long term. Why? Because the recently removed president or dean may well be replaced by a similarly unaware one and the other leaders who remain may have learned little more than that silence on their part is safest. You have called for the head of the current leader and you have gotten it, but have you really helped the other leaders (the deans, the board of regents, etc) to deeply understand the black experience on campus so that they can advocate effectively for systemic change? I fear that you have taught them instead that this issue is too dangerous to touch and that capitulation to single, high profile demands is safest.

For true progress to be made, these leaders need to be taught a lot more than to stop talking and to fire people. Ultimately, you are far better off with engaged, articulate leaders who truly understand the issues than you are with leaders who have been scared into silence. Speaking as a white person, we are easily frightened into keeping our mouths shut on racial issues. It takes much more to help us lean in and learn.  Firing and replacing the president is easier to do, but effects less change, than working with him/her to change campus culture in deeper ways.

So, what is required to develop engaged, empathetic leaders who are committed to learning about experiences of races other than their own?  I believe that for most white people to truly learn about the black experience and begin to respect its particularity, several steps have to occur. First, you have to get our attention, just as you have done. (I am sorry that this part can be so difficult.) And then we need to be allowed to listen, ask questions, and dialogue further. The deepest learning is not usually done in silence.

Protesters at Yale

It took dialogue and long conversations for me to begin to appreciate what it is like to be black in America today. In addition to reading books and articles, I learned through interaction with black friends. Colleagues in InterVarsity and church friends at New Community Bible Fellowship patiently talked with me, graciously giving me space to ask questions and make mistakes. This may have taken herculean patience on their part, but here’s the point: it worked. By not silencing or shaming me, they won a convert to their cause. I understand that doing this teaching requires endless patience and exhausting effort on black people’s part, which is not fair to ask of them, in many regards. I just don’t see any other way to get it done.

It is likely that white people in positions of authority on college campuses need just this type of instruction. So, yes, organize protests and vigils. Hold events where black students describe their experiences on campus. Provide detailed lists of changes you want to see made. Write, speak, sing your experience. And then when you have the university leaders’ attention and you have primed them to begin learning, lean in and help them. I believe real progress can be made this way.

(Part 1, What I would say to conservatives about the recent campus protests can be found here.)

© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.

One thought on “What I would say to student activists (Mizzou, pt. 2)

  1. Pingback: What I would say to conservatives regarding the recent campus protests (Mizzou, part 1) | Thinking about such things

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